Bethany’s boyfriend often smelled bad. “Bad” is a relative term.
She would never have thought of his smell as bad, but it was true that he often had one, a smell, and that many people thought that any natural smell coming from a body must be bad. The condition prevailed by no means always, but often enough that Bethany knew he was identified socially as one who might, or sometimes did, smell. People noticed it.
People were either repelled or attracted by it, according to their nature. It was never eye-watering or sick-making, like a homeless person’s, but it clung to him as a mark by which he could be identified when entering a room even if one had not looked up to see. Bethany thought it likely that everyone had been this way in old times, that odor had been a character trait, a kind of gesture by which one was identified, and loved, as much as eye color or a distinctive walk. People mentioned Gary’s smell, and she said, “Oh, it doesn’t bother me,” but in saying that she thought she had betrayed him a little. Defiance or loyalty might have suggested, “I like it” or “I prefer it.” She always wished she had said that, but never thought of it in time, or was embarrassed by drawing too much attention to the issue at all.
Gary was certainly not homeless. He owned one of those franchise hardware stores which still manages to feel like a neighborhood institution. It had trays of flowers out front all spring and summer, and his employees tried to know everybody’s name. He repaired small machines, like lawnmowers and trimmers, in the back. It did a good business, and Gary was happy to spend a generous portion of his money on her. Once when she was late for a date, she saw him as she rushed into the café.
He was poking at his laptop. She could see the banner headline f or his franchise on the screen; he was evaluating or choosing new merchandise, probably. But what she noticed, suddenly, as if for the first time, was his beauty. Gary was tall and slender–elfin, one might say– with red hair and a harmonious scruff of red beard. It is unusual for a man’s beard to match his hair, until all of it turns gray. His eyes were very blue, his manner guileless as a boy’s. She regarded him a moment–spied on him, actually–reveling in the depths of love she felt for him as he sat oblivious and beautiful in constantly changing proportion. He wore a green scarf she had bought for him that she knew would set off his pallor and redness to advantage, and it did.
Early in the relationship, she had responded to his hygiene problem by giving him a bottle of cologne she thought might be right for him. She was at his house that evening, waiting for him to get ready to go out. He had showered and stood shiny and fresh at the bottom of the stairs. He wore a white shirt and tan trousers, his usual midweek date apparel. He looked fine. But as he pushed into the room, she got a whiff of the cloud of perfume that surrounded him, more pervasive and more disturbing than his body odor had ever been. He had drenched himself in the cologne. His shirt was damp with it across his chest and back. At that instant, she understood. It took that much cologne for him to notice he had any on at all. Gary had no sense of smell, or one so deficient that his odors were suddenly explicable. He didn’t smell himself or anything else.
Bethany said “oh,” and Gary smiled, thinking she meant how good he looked. But it was the “oh” of sudden discernment. Everything was explained, from his carelessness about his person to his apparent indifference to food, making no evident distinction between the excellent and the everyday. Cheap wine and fine wine were the same to him. She had shrugged and put it down to a blue collar upbringing, and though that might have been part of it, it was not all. She noticed he seemed to choose the brightest colors he could get on his plate. Eggs were his favorite, being cheerful bright and, he said, reminding him of home.
She said of the cologne that night, “that’s a little too much.” She helped him slip off his shirt, and she toweled the excess cologne away. His skin was white as seafoam. The hair in his armpits was sparse and red, like a little boy’s. Before she knew what she intended to do, she had closed her lips around his right nipple. They got to the restaurant hours later than they intended.
Bethany’s grandfather had been part of the last generation to be much afflicted by polio, and she’d watched how protective his daughter –her mother–had been of him, clearing walks and halls before him and scouting out elevators and easier ways, aiming vicious looks at anyone who stared too long or made a comment behind upraised hands as he made his uncertain way on two black canes. Bethany thought she could do this, too. She pictured herself–should Gary and she get married some day–sending him to the shower every morning, buying him the deodorant he had no impulse to buy for himself. He would do these things, as men do, not because he agreed with them, but because his mind would be on something else, and such automatic motions would help him to concentrate on whatever that was. He would do it because doing was less bother than arguing.
She wondered sometimes what did occupy Gary’s mind through a typical day. She couldn’t ask as often as she wanted to, for that would make her one of those stereotypical TV girlfriend nags who repeat “So, what are you thinking?” whenever there’s a lull in conversation, thus driving all thoughts away. A lot of effort went into his business. Did he think about that? He was skilled with his hands, and his basement was full of tinkered-with contraptions– which might, after all, be wonderful inventions to benefit the world to come. He put things together which had clearly started very much apart. One chunk of machinery called to the rest of itself across the expanse of the room. Even if they were merely toys, they showed a mind inventive and fanciful, not tied so completely to the everyday. Bethany liked that. She liked roaming around in his basement while he was getting ready to go out, touching this and that, getting grease on her fingertips. But she did not ask him what he was thinking, not very often. Part of taking care of a man was giving him his privacy.
How much he thought about her was unknowable. “I think about you all the time, “ he said the one occasion she asked outright. She worked that simple sentence to tatters in her mind before she decided to let the issue, for the moment, drop. There had been a few irritating things about him at first–besides the smell. She had forgotten most of them, and reconciled to most of the others. Each time she discerned a flaw in his character and excused it, or even turned it into a virtue, she loved him more. Was he doing the same for her? Though she couldn’t name irritating traits of her own, she knew there must be some. He never mentioned one. She vowed not to until he did.
His friends loved him. She marked this down fully on the plus side of the ledger. They’d come to his store and wait for him while the day ended, and they’d walk to the North Side Tavern for a beer and a bowl of popcorn before going home to wives or girlfriends or TV. Their affection for him validated her choice. They were loud and happy together over their beers. He offered to bring her along to the tavern after work, or to skip sometimes to be with her, but she turned him down. She liked the idea of the men together, jostling and laughing, pouring out beer for each other from a giant frosty pitcher she wouldn’t have been able to lift. If they were offended by his occasional smell, or even noticed it, it never seemed to have been mentioned. They were probably not themselves particularly flower-like after a day of work.
Wednesdays was a regular tavern day, so she was a little surprised to arrive at his house at the end of the afternoon and find him already home. She’d hoped for a little time to wander around in the basement before he got home. She heard him in the shower, so she took the time anyway for a turn through the doodads and abstract constructions he would probably have explained to her if she had asked. She got grease on her fingers–almost on purpose–then rubbed it off on a cloth he kept at the workbench for that purpose. The room smelled of oil and steel and of him. She sensed that’s why she crept down there when she could, for that smell. She liked it. It was work and solitude, and that masculine mystique she could never hope fully to enter, and that was fine by her.
She heard him upstairs, padding around after the shower. He dried off not in the bathroom but in the hallway, roaming around as though needing to reacquaint himself with his surroundings before getting dressed. It made the upstairs rugs damp, but she found it charming. She took her time coming up to him. He was standing in the living room, putting on a white shirt. His body gleamed in the angled light through the picture window. She came close for a kiss, and saw that his eyes were red and tearing.
“Did you get soap in your eyes?” she asked, reaching up to brush the soap way, as if it were still there. He moved back away from her touch. He buttoned the shirt hastily over his chest.
“No,” he said.
She perceived he had been crying. Hard. Their relationship was no longer new, but she had no way yet of opening a conversation sprung from the fact of his weeping. She didn’t know what to say. She followed his lead by taking a step back.
“Do I stink?”
She wanted to laugh, but the look on his face assured her he was as serious as one could be.
“Do I stink, Bethany? Do I? This lady at the store.. . I was waiting on her, and she asked if there wasn’t someone else who could wait on her, because I smelled so bad. Do I?”
“I don’t mind it. . . I forget all about it. . .”
Gary’s chin dropped. His shoulders sagged. “I do. You never told me. I stink and nobody ever. . . how long have I been stinking up the place?”
“Oh, you can’t put it that way. . . it isn’t as if–“
“It isn’t as if what?”
“As if anybody who cares about you. . . cares.”
“I’m IN BUSINESS. I face the public EVERY DAY.”
“No one ever mentioned to you–“
“Gary, this one customer–“
“Angie, you know, the Hispanic girl who takes care of the plants, she didn’t think I heard, but I heard her say, ‘Finally.’ FINALLY, as if everybody had been waiting for somebody to say it. All this time–“
“Well, did any of your buddies–“
“You’re my GIRLFRIEND!”
Her mouth opened but nothing came out. He was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “The cologne. That was your way of telling me. I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. You know my sense of smell is just not.. . normal. Not even there most of the time–“
“I know. I told you, it’s nothing to me.”
“I don’t know how to take that, Beth. I’m humiliating myself publically, and it’s nothing to you.”
He turned and stomped back up the stairs. She heard him rummaging around. He was looking for the cologne. She had already spirited it away, to avoid a different kind of social faux pas. He would give up in a minute. Maybe they would go out to buy some more. Maybe they would have a conversation about bathing even when you don’t sense the need to, about following the clock and not your senses, about anything at all. He rummaged and she waited. He appeared again at the top of the stairs. He stood there with his shirt open, applying deodorant first to one armpit, then to the other, far too much of it, jabbing the stick in hard as though his body needed to be punished. He stood where the ceiling of the staircase hid his face. All she could see was his body, and the hands stabbing the deodorant stick savagely into his armpits. If she could just see his face, she would know what to do. He might be grinning that grin. He might have decided to think all of it was funny.
She could take two steps forward and see his face, but she was afraid. Then he unbuttoned his trousers and let them fall ro the floor, he dropped his underwear and began applying the deodorant to his genitals, with the same determined excess. His chest was moving in a way she could identify. He was crying.
He said in a tear-altered voice, “You’ll tell me when it’s enough, won’t you? You’ll tell me when it’s enough.”
He didn’t stop, didn’t waver. She feared he would go on with the savage application of deodorant until she spoke, until she said “enough.” She tried. She tried saying, “Gary, that’s enough” several time before it finally came out of her mouth. When it did, he paused. She saw his hand with the deodorant stick in it, still in the middle of the air. After a few beats he said, “I don’t know why I’d believe you,” and the stick disappeared again, and again, into the white crevasses of his body. She was determined not to turn and walk out the door, as she wanted to. She was determined to stand there witnessing until it was over.
David Hopes is a writer living in Asheville, NC.